Americans filing to the polls this month would marvel to see an election like the one of 1788-89. The results were actually unanimous: everyone, but everyone, wanted George Washington, the then-living embodiment of courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, statesmanship, for the job.
When he rode the week-plus distance from his Mount Vernon home to the temporary seat of the new government in New York, the turnout and celebrations outdid anything before or since in our country – hundreds of thousands of people lining hundreds of miles of roads, tossing flowers, firing cannon salutes, ringing bells, cheering and waving and beaming at the new president.
What struck them – what so many of them talked about for years afterward – was Washington’s quiet response to their overwhelming adulation: he bowed to them. Just a slight tilt of the shoulders, a brief nod of the head… but a bow, nonetheless.
It was unprecedented, in a world governed almost exclusively by kings and queens and commanders of great armies. In those late 1700s, people were expected to bow to their rulers. Rulers never bowed them.
That, to Washington’s mind, was the whole point. He wanted his fellow Americans to understand that he was their servant, not their ruler. Their leader, not their better. This new government would not be a monarchy or a dictatorship, but a republic… in the immortal words of his worthiest successor to the presidential office, a new creation, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
It’s an idea seemingly lost on so many in government work these days, who seem perfectly at ease with inflicting their own ideas of social reconstruction on ordinary citizens, with no mind for, no appreciation for, and no real interest in what those citizens themselves want or believe.
As a result, we have cases like G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a lawsuit challenging a Virginia school district’s policy of maintaining separate restrooms for members of each sex while providing individual, private facilities for students uncomfortable with using a facility that corresponds to their sex.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued school board officials in 2015, accusing them of violating Title IX (a federal law) and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by declining to allow a female student to use the boys’ restrooms. Trouble is, Title IX specifically authorizes schools to have single-sex restrooms and locker rooms.
Despite that legal barrier, a federal court ruled against the school district. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear the case on appeal. (Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys have filed a brief with the Court on behalf of 8,914 concerned parents, students, grandparents, and community members, as well as more than 40 state family policy councils, all of whom support the school district’s policy that protects the privacy and dignity of every student on campus.)
The same overbearing agenda that precipitated the Gloucester case is spurring efforts by California state officials to force licensed medical centers that offer free, pro-life help to pregnant women to post what amount to ads for abortion.
Specifically, these pro-life facilities have to inform their patients that California provides free or low-cost abortion and contraception services … offer a phone number for these services … and add large disclosures about their non-medical status (even if they provide no medical services).
Other courts have invalidated or mostly invalidated similar laws involving ADF clients/allies in Texas, Maryland, and New York, but California officials are bucking those precedents, and a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with them against the pro-life centers. ADF attorneys are now appealing that decision to the full 9th Circuit, asking them to review the panel’s ruling in light of those in the similar cases nationwide.
Happily, some jurists do still recognize the government’s obligation to respect the most basic freedoms of American citizens. Last month in Iowa, a federal judge ruled that churches are not public accommodations subject to government control and that state officials have no business determining which church activities are “religious enough” and which aren’t.
Earlier this year, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission issued guidance documents applying the Iowa Civil Rights Act to churches. That would have required government officials to censor some church teaching on biblical sexuality and force churches to open their changing rooms, showers, and rest rooms to people who identify as members of the opposite sex. (In light of the court’s decision, ADF attorneys dismissed their lawsuit against state and city of Des Moines officials on behalf of one Iowa church.)
It may be too much to hope that Americans will ever again be so united in their beliefs about anyone or anything as the crowds that cheered for president-elect George Washington, all those long years ago. But 200-plus years of political competition and legal struggle have never changed our fondest hope and, really, only request from every elected official: a recognition that they are elected to serve, not rule us.
Whatever else people want to say or remember about George Washington… he understood that expectation. And across his eight years in office, was more than willing to bow to it.